Steve Woolrich: We’re at a crossroads on policing drugs and homelessness

There is no better example of ebb and flow than to look at our justice system, and policing is an integral part of it. Studying justice administration and police science in the mid-1980s provided an opportunity to explore criminal law, and my instructor at the time was Crown prosecutor Peter Martin, now an Alberta Court of Appeal justice.

Fast forward to Peel’s fifth principle of policing which is “to seek and to preserve public favour, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.” That’s a tall order to fill, and police officers do their best to uphold this day in, day out, 24/7.

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It’s quite likely, then, that the world of policing was where the saying “by the book,” really got traction. Police officers often refer to the Criminal Code of Canada, and other forms of legislation in the execution of their duties.

Police leaders and the officers who serve their communities are often found in a difficult spot as they regularly find themselves trying to separate policing from political issues.

According to this particular principle of policing, they must steer clear of catering to influence and maintain the law or risk being scrutinized by the public.

Can you imagine trying to keep various community groups and politicians happy all the time?

We are all equal when it comes to the law and it’s through this impartial service that the police sometimes find themselves under fire when politics and community concerns demand their attention. Policing policies are very structured, as are the laws that we are all bound by.

Therefore, issues such as drug decriminalization and homelessness become hot topics, often creating divisions like those we are now witnessing throughout our country and around the world.

In 2019, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry released a report on decriminalizing drug users in an effort to reduce opioid overdoses. There are many supporters, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which recommends the simple possession of illicit drugs be decriminalized.

Many police officers support this movement, and yet are still bound to enforce drug laws. Premier John Horgan is also an avid supporter of the recommendation and recognizes that we’re in a health crisis, and that changes in legislation would allow police services to tackle other problems.

In Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream, he set out on a three-year, 30,000-mile journey into the war on drugs. What he found is that more and more people all over the world have begun to recognize three startling truths — drugs are not what we think they are, addiction is not what we think it is and the drug war has very different motives from those we have seen on TV screens for so long.

Homelessness is another crisis that the police find themselves in the thick of, and as several authors for the U.S. Urban Institute pointed out in a June 29 article, “addressing chronic homelessness through policing isn’t working. Housing First strategies are a better way.”

The authors go on to suggest that “people forced to endure chronic homelessness (experiencing homelessness for an extended period) are more likely to interact with the police and face citations, arrests and incarceration, trapping them in a homelessness-jail cycle.”

While there are certainly some differences between countries, the war on drugs and the ongoing challenges with homelessness are taxing on police services. Let’s remember that the police are bound to uphold the law, not pander to public opinion or political pressure. Reflect again on Peel’s first principle — their basic mission is to prevent crime and disorder.

Most of us recognize that we are at a crossroads, and that the police continue to be tasked with what many people would say is insurmountable.

It’s critical, then, that the public and the police do their utmost to demonstrate compassion towards our most vulnerable populations and that our politicians expedite new laws that release the pressure on police to enforce laws that are ultimately targeting citizens at risk.

 

Steve Woolrich is a crime prevention practitioner and the principal of Rethink Urban’s collaborative focusing on community safety and well-being.

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